Preparing students for ethical challenges in the course of their job responsibilities has been recognized as a priority by many professional organizations such as ACM, ABET, IEEE, NSPE, and other professional engineering societies. However, there has been debate about whether students should receive instruction from technical faculty or from faculty who have a background in ethics or philosophy. Some programs have a curriculum which includes a standalone ethics course required as part of a technical major. Others may require an ethics course taught outside of the technical program. However, if a university or program does not offer a standalone disciplinary course, meeting recommended ethics training for majors falls to individual faculty within engineering programs. Faculty must then include an ethics component in a technical course. Faculty in this situation often struggle with the need to cover technical content and conclude that it is difficult to include additional instruction on ethics. Faculty also often feel intimidated or unqualified to lead discussions of ethical dilemmas. Even when there are external courses, modeling thought and behavior within engineering by engineering faculty remains crucial for passing on the values of ethical thinking within the field.
Along with discussion of formal ethical frameworks, or even traditional engineering case studies, discussing nuanced, technical details in the context of an ethical dilemma brings additional depth and rigor to students’ burgeoning ethical awareness. However, sparking student engagement in critical ethical theories can be difficult. We argue that speculative fictional narratives can be used to increase student engagement during classes as well as engage diverse learning preferences. Additionally, fiction engages diverse student backgrounds by explicitly including a wide range of other fields such as history, literature and other humanities or social science disciplines.
Having established the importance of embedding ethics instruction into technical courses and the potential of fictional short stories as engaging instructional materials, we turn from the aspirational goals to the operational concerns. How can faculty incorporate ethics instruction via fiction into undergraduate courses which are usually reserved strictly for technical content? In this paper, we present a framework for structuring a single class period (50-75 minutes) around an ethical dilemma delivered via a short work of fiction. We also include three examples of this class structure applied to short stories about 1) the decision making process of autonomous vehicles, 2) artificial intelligence (AI) as a caretaker, and 3) destruction of the natural world and indigenous cultures in the name of technological progress. Each of these examples include a short story and a set of discussion questions which could also be used as writing prompts. These questions are designed to expose students to several of the major ethical frameworks including Utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Virtue Ethics. We include strategies and ideas for instructors who have little training in either formal ethics or managing class discussions about ethical topics. For instructors who wish to develop additional exercises, we include a resource list for further exploration of short stories, movies, and ethical frameworks.
Are you a researcher? Would you like to cite this paper?
Visit the ASEE document repository at
for more tools and easy citations.